The “Baldwin Effect”

The Baldwin Effect is one of the weirdest things to be accepted in evolutionary theory; it is what accounts for much of the accelerated rate of adaptation in advanced creatures, especially vertebrates with complex brains. Because of it, individual mammals are prone to have rather distinct personalities and eccentricities. There is a very good evolutionary reason why humans “have special purpose that they need to discover”, and the reason is the Baldwin Effect.
From the linked pdf (see below):
“What the Baldwin Effect affects”
“The Baldwin Effect is a proposed mechanism by which plasticity
facilitates adaptive phenotypic and genetic evolution. In
particular it has been proposed to be involved in the evolution
of language. Here we investigate three factors affecting
the extent to which plastic traits are fixed by selection: (i) the
difficulty with which traits can be acquired through plasticity,
(ii) the importance of traits to fitness, and (iii) the nature of
dependencies between different traits. We find that selection
preferentially fixes traits that are difficult to acquire through
plasticity, traits that have larger fitness benefits, and traits that
affect the acquisition of, or benefits from, other traits. We conclude
by discussing the implications of these findings for the
evolution of language as well as non-human behaviors and reconsider the evolutionary significance of the Baldwin Effect.”

The “Baldwin Effect” is a key feature of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis and one of the weirder things to be observed in nature. It is a key part of the “evolution of evolvability” in higher animals. It is most noticeable in mammals, but corvids exhibit it well given that they are the most intelligent of the birds.

The key things are that:

1) Where a creature has the ability to process many different forms of behavior. In science-speak this means that the search-space for possible behaviors  is vast compared to the number of actions that a creature might be expected to engage in.

2) And there is no telling ahead of time which forms of behavior will become adaptive, given a complex ecological context.

3) Then it is adaptive for individuals to experiment with weird behaviors that are not obviously adaptive from the outset and are somewhat unique.

4) Thus ravens and cats and dogs and primates and cetaceans and octopi will, on close examination, be found to have various eccentric behaviors unique to individuals that are not obviously adaptive.

The above will include not only playing with sticks and stones, and trying our new and possibly semi-dangerous forms of food, but also quasi social interactions with other species. Inter-species interaction could lead to symbiosis or domestication. While normal natural selection merely reacts to existing selection pressures, the “Baldwin Effect” specifically means the process of experimenting with new behaviors that create new selective pressures from out of nothing as it were.

For example, the Baldwin Effect is responsible for distinctively human “Existential Freedom”

What is interesting to me about “existence precedes essence” is the following:

1) If true, it is a formal description of the behavior of a living creature. As a “formal” description, it still leaves open many questions about humans, including the following:

2) “Material “causes (how is the brain of this creature wired such that it is free),

3) “Efficient” causes (the ontogentic and phylogenetic development of free humans) and

4) “Final” causes (what is the adaptive purpose of being “free” in this sense).

My question is this: given that most existentialists believe in evolution, why have they never ever posed the above questions about the “human reality”? These questions are foundational and unavoidable. Surely with all the ink spilled over this topic, someone HAD to treat of this question. Am I really the first person to think this?

Once you have posited a formal description, you still need the material, efficient and final causes to get a full explanation. For final causes, we much ask: “Is radical freedom adaptive or not? If not, how is it a by-product of an adaptation?”

My gut feeling is that this “freedom” is one name for a few related features which are mostly adaptive, especially if the Baldwin Effect is considered an adaptation.

I've changed my mind about a lot of things. It was scary but fun.

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